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Will Talladega shake up points race?
Kyle Busch found out the hard way at Kansas Speedway how quickly a point advantage can fade away.
Busch entered that Oct. 6 weekend just 12 points behind standings leader Matt Kenseth. But exiting the first turn on the first lap, the driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota was swept up in a multi-car wreck, and the hits just kept on coming.
The final blow — delivered on Lap 200 — retired Busch 34th in the results and fifth in the standings, 35 points out of the lead.
Suddenly, what many considered a three-man race became a duel between Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who enters Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega trailing Kenseth by four for the lead.
If Busch — now fifth, 37 points behind Kenseth — can find that much trouble on an intermediate track, imagine what can happen to shuffle the point standings on the 2.66-mile high banks of Talladega Superspeedway.
“Certainly, I realize today that we're the point leader and pretty much pretty close to being tied with the 48,” Kenseth said. “If you have a bad week any week, that's going to hurt. And your chances of having a bad race here are probably a little bit higher than other tracks because you can get caught up in stuff.
“I don't think you want to give up any race. I don't think you want to have a bad finish anywhere. I don't really want to be careful and then finish 15th anywhere. So, I don't know. You just never know what's going to happen.”
Kenseth is right. Even the most talented drivers have very little control over their destinies at Talladega. Seven of the top nine Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers, including Kenseth, have wins at Talladega. And all seven drivers have wrecked multiple times at the track.
But should Kenseth and Johnson have issues, the 29-point deficit between the leader and third-place Kevin Harvick could shrink in a hurry. Harvick’s strategy is simple: “Don’t wreck.”
"That's the perfect strategy,” Harvick said. “How you do that I don't know, but I'm hoping we have the luck we need to make sure that we don't have any major issues this weekend at Talladega."
Jeff Gordon leads all current Sprint Cup drivers with six wins at Talladega. After receiving a Chase dispensation from NASCAR chairman Brian France, the four-time Cup champion knows “we have nothing to lose,” unlike the competitors ahead of him.
With seven points separating fourth-place Gordon from Harvick, a solid run on Sunday could have the No. 24 team sitting pretty with four races remaining in the playoffs.
“We recognize where we are in the points and that this could be a turning point for us, that we need to come out of here with a pretty solid finish and make up some of those points that we’re behind right now, and that this is a track that we can do it at,” Gordon said. “We know there are other tracks where that can happen; it can happen anywhere.
“But this is certainly one where anything can happen and anything can happen anywhere. And we expect that. And we’re going to do everything we can to go out there and approach it in a way that’s going to give us the best finish.
"Sometimes that means we’re going to be real aggressive and sometimes that means we’re going to be real conservative. But to say that we have an exact plan at this moment, or to say that plan might not change when they drop the green, I just can’t say that because I’m not really sure.”
With the new Generation 6 cars, drivers no longer have the luxury to ride around the back of the pack in an attempt to stay out of harm’s way. If a driver falls out of the draft, there might not be sufficient time to return to the front. Gordon believes that “track position is still going to be important in the closing laps of this race.”
Like Gordon, Kurt Busch considers Talladega “a go-for-broke weekend.” Five races into the Chase, Busch had hoped his Furniture Row Racing team “would be within 30 points of the lead.” He’s currently seventh, 59 points outside of first, but just one point behind sixth-place Greg Biffle.
While Busch considers the year a success since his team qualified for the Chase, he still is hoping to win a race in the No. 78 Chevy before he leaves for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end — even if he must channel Ricky Bobby to pull off the feat.
“We have Wonder Bread on the car,” said Busch of his "Talladega Nights" paint scheme. “They want to be up front, they want to be seen, they want to experience the return on investment on sponsoring the car. Secondly, we need to go for the win. We need to have nothing but trying to try to win happen and get ourselves back in this Chase if we are going to have a shot at it.”
Kenseth, who is the defending winner of this race, always has maintained a pragmatic approach when it comes to Talladega. He has led laps in 21 of the 27 Cup races in which he’s competed here, including a career-high 142 in April, when he started sixth and finished eighth.
“I don’t know what good it’s going to do me to get freaked out about it right now,” Kenseth said. ”They’ve been working really hard on this car, and I know TRD (Toyota Racing Development) has been working on engines, so hopefully, we’ve got some speed when we get out there.
“If we don’t, there’s not really a lot I can do about it.”
20 — Sprint Cup drivers participated in Happy Hour. Jimmie Johnson topped the speed chart with a lap of 195.936 mph. The fastest lap of the day (202.000 mph) was set by Aric Almirola in first practice.
11 — Cup drivers broke the 200 mph barrier in first practice.
6 — Truck Series poles for Jeb Burton in 23 career starts.
Danica Patrick on making friends at Talladega Superspeedway:
“As far as friends go, I think that happens when you do well,” Patrick said. “Everybody wants to be your friend when you are fast, so the best thing I can do is go be fast.”